Steve was the nephew of my former orthodontist.
That’s how he introduced himself when I received his unexpected call. “I’m your former orthodontist’s nephew,” he announced. Both he and my former orthodontist had the same last name, and when he arrived at my front door, I spotted a familiar arrangement of baldness, so I had no reason to dispute his claim. I just didn’t know what he was doing at my house.
I had never met Steve, and having endured both nerve-tingling pain when my braces were tightened and gagging bouts of nausea during the taking of “impressions”, I was no great fan of his uncle. But here he was.
“Welcome,” I said.
What else could I say, “Go away!”?
Steve explained that a mutual friend from Toronto had suggested that, when he was in London, he should look me up. This happened with no small frequency. But normally, the unexpected callers were people I knew, like my mother’s friends, Alfie Freeman and his wife Mary, who were instructed to take me to a decent place for dinner, so my mother would know that, for one meal at least, I wasn’t eating crap.
Steve was a stranger. For me, the chilling word “stranger” brings to mind the line delivered by Walter Brennan in the classic western, Red River:
I never liked strangers. That’s because no stranger ever “good-newsed” me.
This is hardly an alien sentiment to me.
It turned out that Steve was a nice stranger. (Challenging my general view of humanity.) His new bride, however, was not. (Re-enforcing my general view of humanity. I was one-for-two. Wariness remained a reasonable response.)
Steve and his American bride – she was from Detroit – had married just a few days before. Their plan was to enjoy a couple of weeks touring the famous landmarks of England, then settle for the year in London, working as substitute teachers, in a beleaguered British school system, where the only qualification for the job of substitute teacher (for British citizens and members of the Commonwealth) was a college degree in anything.
Canada was a member of the Commonwealth. The Detroit woman was married to a Canadian. Both had college degrees. Ergo, two qualified substitute teachers.
Yeah, about that woman. I mean, she was admittedly darkly beautiful and impeccably groomed, but she had this pinched face and wrinkled-up nose that said, “Something smells here.” It turns out what she meant by “here” was England. The whole place.
Steve’s new bride was clearly used to better things. Better heat. Better plumbing. Better phone service. Better food. Better everything. Plus, it appeared, though it was never articulated, servants. I immediately sensed that the “year in London” adventure had not been her idea.
I quickly received confirmation of this impression when, after two days in England, Steve’s new bride abruptly packed her bags and returned to Detroit. Steve was devastated by her departure. As the only person he knew in London, it fell to me to comfort and console my former orthodontist’s nephew.
Besides being devastated, Steve was also angry. A lot of planning (now, clearly, all his) had gone into the “year in London” strategy, and he was not ready to throw it all away. That’s why, when she left, he stayed. (I actually don’t know why he stayed. I don’t know for sure why she left. It could have been Steve. But going by her disparaging commentary on England, it definitely wasn’t all Steve.)
A couple of days after his wife’s exit to Michigan, the mourning period apparently over, I get a call from Steve. He was thinking about the honeymoon plans – touring the famous landmarks of England. Steve was determined not to abandon those plans merely because his wife had left the country. He asked me if I’d like to accompany him instead.
I had never visited the famous landmarks of England. I had no car (nor a license, nor any interest in driving on the left). And at the time of his invitation, I had nothing to do.
So I said okay.
And that’s how I got to go on Steve’s honeymoon instead of his wife.
It was a memorable experience. We explored historic Windsor Castle. We stopped at Stratford-Upon-Avon, home of William Shakespeare, taking in a superlative Henry the Fourth - Part One.
Then it was off to Oxford.
We toured the venerable university, lolling happily on the grounds, as we downed pints of “bitter” from pewter tankards whose bottoms were made of glass, the glass being the source, it was explained to us, of the toast, “Here’s looking at you.”
The image that remains most vividly was of me, seated at one end of a rickety old boat, my hair blowing in the wind, as Steve, stationed at the other end wielding a long wooden pole, “punted” us capably down the river that wound lazily through the campus. How we laughed when he had to duck suddenly to avoid the bridge. Steve was agile but tall.
And then, suddenly, it was over. Despite her wretched behavior, Steve pined desperately for his absent bride. And so, abandoning his dream of “a year in London”, he boarded a plane for Detroit, hoping for reconciliation.
I had to let him go. It was the right thing to do.
I never heard from Steve again. (Maybe he wasn’t that nice.) I have no idea if they got back together. A part of me hopes that they didn’t. That’s not me, being awful. I just knew he could do better.
I went on with my life. One must, you know. I felt damaged, but resilient. Steve was gone, it was true, but after all,
We’d always have Oxford.